“Healthy” Skepticism – Why doubting is good

“The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively not by the false appearance of things, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.Schopenhauer

The world tends to have contempt for skeptics. They view them as “rejectors”, as cynics, as grumpy curmudgeons who disbelieve and disavow any new idea. They call them “Doubting Thomases” – people who are never open to ideas or new thoughts. And they cast them in movies with Jack Lemmon.

But this couldn’t be further from reality. Skepticism and doubt are both positive, rational traits that help us find the truth. In fact, the word skeptic derives from the Greek skepsis, which means examination, inquiry, consideration. Skepticism is the application of reason to any and all ideas. Thus, skepticism and doubt are methods or approaches – not positions.

Thus, the skeptic is very open to possibilities, but demands some evidence. And this requires the vigorous exercise of the scientific method and one’s critical thinking muscle to validate them. No wonder the term “healthy skepticism” – all that exercise is good for you!

So, what should you be skeptical of?

Be skeptical of certainty
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Voltaire

As thinking, rational beasts, we gain knowledge from our experiences in life. And that’s good. But, as I’ve discussed before, being knowledgeable and “knowing” are two very different things. Just because we’ve experienced a similar situation before doesn’t mean we can be certain what is right for this one. We should, instead, recognize we don’t really know the answer, and be open to learn.

The problem with certainty is that it all about the “knower” and his self-esteem, vs. being about the reality and the truth. And, certainty prevents additional inquiry, testing, or further learning. When you’re confronted with someone who is certain, consider using the Socratic method – ask a few questions and try to stimulate some critical thinking.

Be skeptical of the majority
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain

It’s hard to argue against what everyone else believes. When one person posits a belief, there can be disagreement or debate. But when more than one agrees that it is truth, this often shuts down our own inquiry. But that’s even more reason to question. As Edmund Burke stated, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Don’t do nothing.

Be skeptical of yourself
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James

Oftentimes, the person you need to be most skeptical of is yourself. You don’t even realize it, but there are millions of things you have made your mind up about without much proof or rationale. Force yourself to doubt your immediate impulses, your deep-seeded beliefs and all the things you “know”. My guess is that you’ll find you’ve been wrong a large percentage of the time.

It’s also important to be skeptical of your in-going biases and prejudices. We often disagree with an idea because we don’t “like that kind of thing”. When you face those knee-jerk biases, you’ll likely learn you aren’t as closed off to them as you thought.

For leaders, it may feel odd to doubt yourself. But, believe me, it’s healthy. One way I demonstrate a touch of self-skepticism is by saying “I have an ‘alleged idea…” when positing a thought. This shows that I’m not so sure of myself, and I’m open to any and all rational scrutiny.

Be skeptical of conventional wisdom
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.Stephen Jay Gould

Someone said that conventional wisdom is often neither. However, most people take conventional wisdom as gospel, and don’t take time or energy to probe it. But conventional wisdom must be questioned and scrutinized – because it is usually either out-dated, contextually irrelevant, overly vague or just plain wrong.

Personally, I love things that turn conventional wisdom on its head. “Freakonomics”, “Moneyball”, Malcolm Gladwell, you name it. All it takes is one thinking person who faces the “truth” with substance and depth. As Galileo said, “the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

Be skeptical of what seems convenient
“When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.” Thucydides

Everyone’s job is tough enough. So it’s natural that we tend to agree with whatever helps us solve our immediate problems and makes our lives easier. We like research when it validates our ideas, listen to experts when they’re supporting our beliefs, see patterns in the data that help us sell our programs. But force yourself to exercise that skepticism muscle anyway. Odds are, you’ll find that the truth is just as helpful. And much more believable

So, as Socrates and Descartes say, be skeptical of everything. Except what I just said. And the last thing I said. And… well, you get the picture.


  1. Being skeptical of other people is usually fairly easy for me. Where I run into trouble is being skeptical of myself. I have yet to meet someone that I would classify as pure of heart (myself included). Be wary of what your own motives are for doing what you do. I am the person most likely to lead me astray. Good advice Michael.

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